By P Prem Kumar
Thousands of Rohingya "refugees" may soon be able to take up employment opportunities in Malaysia, with the government announcing plans for a pilot project focusing on specific market sectors Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the parliament that the proposal will take into account the safety, security, legislation, documentation and welfare of Rohingya who have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Appropriate employment sectors would be identified and approved before the pilot project can be implemented," he said.
He underlined that under present legislation, refugees are not permitted to be employed in any job sector as they are all categorized as illegal migrants.
"The Rohingya also do not possess any travel documents or passports to enable job facilities to be arranged, which automatically makes them illegal occupants in the country, and it is illegal to hire illegal immigrants to work," Hamidi, also the Home Minister, said.
He added that the government was particularly concerned about their fate -- be they new arrivals or those who have resided in Malaysia for some time -- as it was aware of the problems they face back home.
"Malaysia cares for them as well due to their country-less status as the Myanmar government does not recognize the citizenship of the Rohingya," he said.
Myanmar's rulers officially regard the group as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and most are referred to as “Bengalis”.
Rohingya have been fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since sectarian violence erupted in 2012 -- many assisted by people smugglers to travel by boat from Bangladesh to Thailand, where they cross over the border into Malaysia in the hope of securing sanctuary and employment.
However, in early May this year Thai authorities launched a crackdown on people-smuggling camps on their southern border, scaring traffickers into abandoning their human cargo -- mostly Bangladeshi and Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution -- at sea.
Following a tri-nation conference on the crisis May 20, Indonesia and Malaysia announced they would take those they considered to be refugees -- predominantly Rohingya -- in for one year before the international community finds homes for them, while those classified as economic migrants -- predominantly Bangladeshi -- would be repatriated.
Malaysia is not party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and its Protocol 1967, however it has underlined that it will continue to extend humanitarian assistance to refugees from Myanmar and the Middle East.
As of last year, some 146,020 refugees and asylum seekers had been registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, of which the vast majority -- some 135,000 -- are from Myanmar.
That 135,000 is a combination of three ethnic groups, including Chins -- predominantly Christian -- the Muslim Rohingya and other Myanmar Muslims who all claim to be persecuted for ethnic and religious reasons.